Updated at 1:30 p.m. ET
Satellite imagery shared exclusively with NPR shows that an Iranian rocket appears to have exploded on the launch pad Thursday.
The imagery from the commercial company Planet and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows smoke billowing from the pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran. The pad had been given a fresh coat of paint in recent days, and numerous vehicles had been spotted around the site in preparation for the launch attempt.
"This look likes the space launch vehicle blew up on the launch pad," says Dave Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute who has analyzed the imagery taken Thursday. "This failure happened maybe a couple of minutes before the image was taken."
The failure is the third this year. In January and February, Iran attempted to launch two rockets, both of which failed to reach orbit.
The exact type of rocket that failed Thursday is unclear, but the circular pad had previously been used to launch a type of two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket known as the Safir. The rocket is relatively small and can carry only small satellites into orbit. Earlier this month, Iran said one such satellite, known as Nahid-1, was ready to be launched.
Imagery from a second commercial satellite owned by the company Maxar, showed the accident's aftermath in more detail. The images appeared to show the rocket still attached to the machinery used to transport and erect it for launch.
"This looks to me like an accident during launch preparation," says Michael Elleman, Director of the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It'd probably likely be a problem during fueling the missile, or an electrical shortage."
The Trump administration has accused Iran of using its space program to develop long-range missiles, but Elleman says he doesn't believe the space program is directly applicable to missiles. "I think it's a real stretch what the administration is claiming," he says. "I don't know of a single satellite launcher that's been converted into a ballistic missile."
Domestically, Iran's space program is much more about trying to show the nation as a technological leader, says Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. "The regime tries to portray Iran as being at the forefront of science and tech," Tabatabai says. "The space program really sits within that narrative."
This latest failure is likely to put still more pressure on Iran's small space program. "This is probably not going to reflect well on the space team in Iran and all the resources going towards it," Schmerler says.
But Tabatabai says that despite the spate of failures this year, it's unlikely Iran will give up entirely on its space ambitions. "The program has been around for a few decades now," she says. "I don't think we're going to stop seeing Iran trying."
In fact, another launch could be imminent. Schmerler says satellites have picked up activity at a second, larger launch pad near where the failure took place. "We might still get a launch off that pad in the near future," he says.